The Magical Power of Empathy – a Creative Challenge
It all began with a dare – as many of the best adventures do. One evening in 2018 my friend Aaron and I went for a drink and during the course of our conversation, we established two things: One, we both really wanted to go to Berlin, having never been before, and two, we were both fans of the band Bauhaus.
‘I wonder if Bauhaus are gigging in Berlin this year?’ Aaron mused, a few beers in.
A quick Google search confirmed that yes, they were.
‘Why don’t we go and see them in Berlin?’ Aaron asked, a couple more beers in.
It was exactly the kind of madcap, spur of the moment proposition I love, so it was an instant ‘YES!’ from me.
But it wasn’t the music I ended up remembering the most from our trip, it was the art I discovered that had a profound effect on me.
The hotel we stayed in happened to be next to the largest outdoor art gallery in the world – the remaining, mile-long section of the Berlin Wall. The Wall had been built after the Second World War, to separate East from West, creating a fracture right through Germany. When the wall was demolished in 1990 part of it was left standing and artists from all over the world were invited to adorn it with murals depicting the cruelty of separating humans from one another and celebrating unity. Seeing such powerful works of art really brought the trauma of those times home to me. I’d just begun work on a novel called Clementine and Rudy, about a street artist and poet who form a creative collaboration, and I was instantly inspired to bring the characters to Berlin, in a case of art imitating life imitating art, or something!
But even more powerful art inspiration was to come. On our last day in Berlin, Aaron and I decided to visit the Jewish Museum. With its zig-zag corridors, claustrophobic spaces and slits in the walls, the museum had been designed to convey the trauma of the Jewish experience; a piece of art in itself.
Here’s what the Rudy from my novel Clementine and Rudy says, upon arriving at the museum (in which I was basically channelling my own experience):
‘It’s like no building I’ve ever been in before, with jagged corridors and sloping floors. The exhibits are arranged along long corridors lined with glass cases, each displaying some kind of object or photo, every one telling a story. I stop in front of a glass case containing a handmade card, decorated with a dried, pressed violet. The description next to it tells the story of a couple called Ernst and Rosa who emigrated from Berlin to Italy. Ernst was arrested at the outbreak of the war and taken to some kind of prison camp. He’d sent the card to Rosa from the camp to celebrate the arrival of spring. The flower is fading now and the card is yellowing with age but there’s something so beautiful about it. Even though Ernst was trapped inside a prison camp, even though he’d been torn away from his wife and family, he still had the urge to create. And he created something full of joy and hope. I feel a weird kind of energy rising up in me. Even in the face of the worst kind of evil, people can create beauty. People must create beauty. I carry on reading and my heart practically cracks in two. Ernst was deported to Auschwitz and died on a death march from the camp. I swallow hard to stop myself crying. I look back at the flower on the card. I think of what Clementine said yesterday at the Wall, about artists having the power because they speak the truth. I think of how many people must have seen this card and its terrible beautiful truth. And I make a silent vow to never stop telling the truth through my painting. For the sake of Ernst and all the artists who came before me.’
I got the first seed of the idea for Clementine and Rudy after I started writing poems inspired by street art and posting them on Instagram, but my trip to Berlin took this concept to the next level, giving real depth and meaning to the novel. I love how art can inspire empathy – how standing in front of a mural on a wall, or a hand-made card in a museum enables you to get inside the artist’s head and see the world from their point of view. And I love how that empathy can in turn inspire new pieces of art, in a chain reaction of compassion.
In the novel, Clementine is inspired to write a poem when she sees a piece of street art by Rudy that really resonates with her. She posts a photo of Rudy’s art together with her poem on Instagram and tags Rudy. And so begins a creative collaboration and friendship founded upon empathy.
To celebrate Empathy Day (taking place on June 9th) I would love to turn the theme of the novel into a challenge and invite you to create your own piece of art or writing inspired by empathy for another.
Like Clementine, you could write a poem inspired by an image. Or you could switch it around and create an image inspired by another’s words. Or you could create a piece of art or writing out of empathy for an issue or cause, such as Black Lives Matter or saving the environment.
I’d love to see what you come up with, so please feel free to message or tag me using #ClementineandRudy. Here’s to the magical power of empathy to transform the world!
Clementine and Rudy is available from all good book stores now.